A ‘Wonderful’ play: Altoona Community Theatre staging holiday classic at Mishler

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Jim Watt, as George Bailey, and Clara Cooper, as Zuzu, look at Zuzu’s prize flower in rehearsals for ACT’s “It’s a Wondeful Life.”

Jim Watt can relate to George Bailey.

“As a father of three kids who works every day, George Bailey is not that far of a jump for me,” Watt said.

Bailey, of course, is the hero of the classic 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” played by Indiana, Pa.’s own Jimmy Stewart. In the movie, Bailey longs to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls, N.Y., filled with wanderlust, but circumstance and family keep him anchored to small-town life. When a desperate situation arises at the building-and-loan he operates with his uncle Billy, Bailey is visited by an angel who reveals the impact he’s had on Bedford Falls and what would have happened if he had never been born.

“It’s a story of this man confronted with the demands and pressures of life,” Watt said, “but he’s also confronted by the mark he’s made and the gift he’s given to people.”

Watt, who lives in Duncansville, will take on the iconic role of the everyman Bailey when Altoona Community Theatre stages a production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 through 18 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Mishler Theatre in downtown Altoona.

Tickets cost between $17 and $22 (box offices fees are included in the prices), and they can be purchased in person at the Mishler box office between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. They also can be purchased by calling (814) 944-9434 or online at www.mishlertheatre.org.

“It’s my favorite movie, and it’s got a message, a message that really resonates with people,” said Watt, who is appearing in his first ACT production. “No one can hold a candle to Jimmy Stewart, and I’m not going to try. Everyone knows the story, so the question becomes how do you make it different, into something that people are going to want to watch?

“I don’t want to do this pseudo-bad Jimmy Stewart impersonation, but I do want to pay homage to him, as well.”

Watt has previously appeared in Things Unseen’s “True West” and “The Weir,” but he is “excited to do something that my kids can come see me in,” acknowledging Things Unseen’s edgier fare. “It’s nice to do something a little more family-oriented,” he added, with a chuckle.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is directed by Woody Pyeatt, another newcomer to the Altoona Community Theatre troupe.

Pyeatt has directed “about 100 shows, maybe a little more, maybe a little less,” but, he added, “just not here.” He and his wife, Marilyn, recently relocated to Hollidaysburg from Texas to be close to their son, Nicholas, an assistant professor of political science at Penn State Altoona, and his family. Marilyn has been involved in three other shows since their move — “Little Women” and “My Fair Lady” with ACT and “Exit Laughing” with the Iron Bridge Dinner Theatre in Tyrone — and will play George Bailey’s mother in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Vanessa Ponder of Altoona will play the role of Mary, George’s wife, while E. Bernhard Warg of Philipsburg will portray the angel Clarence. Earl Cooper will play Uncle Billy Bailey, Tom Buck will play antagonist Mr. Potter and Ryen Beam will portray Harry Bailey, among a cast of 39 players.

“One of the things the ACT artistic committee asked me to do was involve as many people as possible, especially a number of people new to the stage at ACT, or with previous limited involvement,” Pyeatt said. “It’s a complicated production; during the last scene of the play, everyone except one person is on stage. There are a lot of set pieces flying in or rolling in. Backstage will be crowded at times.”

“It’s not a movie, it’s a play,” Watt said. “There are no multiple takes to change scenes; the scenes are free-flowing. Woody wants this movement of the set, for me to leave one scene and walk into the next scene. Woody has this grand vision. The choreography is complex.

“And I’m praying every day that I don’t screw it up,” he laughed.

While most are very familiar with the film, Pyeatt’s hope is for the production to stand on its own.

“It’s not exactly like the movie,” he said. “Characters are left out; situations are tweaked. It’s a theatrical adaptation, not a slavish imitation of the movie script.

“I don’t want (the actors) to be (influenced by the movie). If it comes out that way, fine. But we don’t want a Jimmy Stewart impersonator or anyone else in the cast. They have to make the parts their own, and they are doing a good job of it.”

Staging “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been in ACT’s conversation for some time, said the troupe’s operations manager, Steve Helsel.

“We had some success with a holiday show in the past, in that time slot right before Thanksgiving,” Helsel said. “We’ve done ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘A Christmas Story,’ and that’s one of the things we wanted to do again, since we haven’t done it in a couple of years. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ always came up in discussions. It’s something with a good cast size, and it’s popular with audiences.

“It will be a nice way to kick off the holidays.”

Watt believes this is a great show for both steadfast stage fans and those not as accustomed to live theater.

“If you’re a fan of theater, it’s good theater,” Watt said. “There are great people on stage and a slew of great people behind the scenes.

“If you’re not a fan, it’s a great show to go to. It’s a great holiday tradition, and in the end, it makes you feel good. We need that — to be entertained and walk away feeling good about life, about your community and about your neighbors.”

Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.

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If you go

What: Altoona Community Theatre’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16, 17 and 18, and 2 p.m. Nov. 19.

Where: Mishler Theatre, downtown Altoona

Tickets: $17 to $22 (box office fees included in price). They can be purchased between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekedays at the Mishler box office, by phone at (814) 944-9434 or online at www.mishlertheatre.org.

Note: ACT will collect non-perishable food items during the performances. Everything collected will be given to the new food pantry at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Altoona.

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